Poll shows we care a lot about human rights.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
While the topic of human rights is frequently in the news, mainstream media coverage of human rights invariably describes violations in faraway lands. Social injustice in the United States almost is never discussed in terms of fundamental human rights.
But a new national poll commissioned by The Opportunity Agenda, a New York-based nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and sponsored by The Nation magazine, reveals that Americans care deeply about human rights at home. They see them as crucial to who they are as a country, and they worry that the country is not living up to those principles.
The telephone poll of 1,500 respondents, along with a series of focus groups and interviews, represents the most extensive body of opinion research ever assembled on this subject.
Eighty percent of Americans agree – 62 percent “strongly” – that “every person has basic rights regardless of whether their government recognizes those rights or not.” Eight in 10 also believe “we should strive to uphold human rights in the United States because there are people being denied their human rights in our country.” Three-quarters want the United States to focus on regular progress on human rights. Two in 10 said the United States should move “slowly” or allow human rights solutions to “evolve naturally.”
Americans see constitutional rights and human rights as mutually essential.
Americans view human rights as crucial to protecting the dignity, fairness and opportunity that all people deserve. And they treasure the historic American ideal, voiced by Thomas Jefferson, of inalienable rights that flow from a creator.
Particularly striking is the disconnect between the beliefs of Americans and the positions that the government has taken regarding human rights at home. Since the Cold War, the government has contended that the only “real” human rights are civil and political rights like free speech and freedom of religion, while denying the validity of economic and social rights like the right to education or health care as, at best, aspirational and, at worst, socialistic. But Americans overwhelmingly reject that dichotomy.
Large majorities believe “strongly” that human rights include “equal access to quality education,” access to health care (72 percent) and “fair pay for workers to meet their basic needs for food and housing” (68 percent). These attitudes parallel Americans’ strong belief that civil and political rights like freedom from torture or abuse by law enforcement (83 percent), equal opportunity regardless of race (85 percent) and gender (86 percent), and being treated fairly in the criminal justice system (83 percent) are human rights that must be protected.
The federal government at times has contended that Americans don’t need human rights because they have a Bill of Rights and other protections in the Constitution. But Americans see constitutional rights and human rights as mutually essential. Asked whether they believed that “because the U.S. has the Constitution and Bill of Rights we do not need to strive to uphold human rights here in America,” 81 percent disagreed – 61 percent strongly – while 18 percent agreed with the statement.
These findings should be a wake-up call for the U.S. government and a new tool for those working for social justice. Policy decisions about health-care reform should reflect healthcare’s status as a fundamental human right that Americans overwhelmingly embrace. That means any proposal must ensure quality care to everyone in our country.
Similarly, addressing inadequate and starkly unequal resources within public schools takes on new urgency when it moves from being a good idea to being a right all children and parents have by virtue of their humanity. And the way prisoners are treated domestically and in places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib must change when 67 percent of Americans agree, as they did in this survey, that “torturing prisoners suspected of terrorism is a violation of the prisoners’ human rights.”
This spring, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) will review the U.S. government’s report on racial discrimination within its borders and its efforts to address it. Organizations around the country also will weigh in on U.S. performance with reports to the U.N. committee.
Coming in the midst of the presidential campaign, the CERD committee process is a chance to ask the candidates what they would do, to enforce domestic human rights obligations, as well as whether they would seek ratification of outstanding human rights agreements that most of the world’s governments have joined.